WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Shortcomings by John McCain's campaign in the art of politics are alienating two organizations of Christian conservatives. James Dobson's Focus on the Family is estranged following the failure of Dobson and McCain to talk out their differences. Evangelicals who follow the Rev. John Hagee resent his disavowal by McCain.
The evangelicals are not an isolated problem for the Republican candidate. Enthusiasm for McCain inside the Republican coalition is in short supply. During the four months since McCain clinched the nomination, he has not satisfied conservatives who oppose his positions on global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration, domestic oil drilling and how to ban same-sex marriages.
Among all constituency groups, McCain's need for the evangelicals is most crucial. After supporting Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, Christian conservatives switched to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and since have been indispensable for Republican presidential candidates. Dobson and Hagee, who are not merely inside-the-Beltway interest group chairmen or think tank managers, command substantial followings.
"I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," Dobson said in January 2007, adding, "I pray that we won't get stuck with him." After McCain clinched the nomination, however, Dobson privately invited him to his Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. When members of the Family Policy Council gathered there May 9 for an annual conference, the word was spread that McCain's campaign staff had rebuffed Dobson's invitation.
It had not been that simple. The McCain campaign had responded that the senator would be in Denver May 2 and would be happy to see Dobson in his hotel suite for a visit not limited by time. Dobson declined and asked McCain to come to Colorado Springs. McCain then also declined.
As the stalemate with Dobson continued, McCain had in his pocket an endorsement he had sought from popular televangelist Hagee. Founder and pastor of the Cornerstone mega church in San Antonio, Hagee endorsed McCain in a joint press conference Feb. 27. William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, immediately asked whether McCain agreed with Hagee's description of Catholicism as a "Godless theology." McCain started backing away, asserting his courtship of the pastor was "probably" a mistake.
Donahue, accustomed to no remorse by Catholic-bashers, was surprised when Hagee apologized in writing and then engaged him in a warm private meeting at Catholic League offices in New York. But Obama supporters seeking McCain equivalence with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were not finished. The Huffington Post featured a decade-old Hagee video asserting Adolph Hitler was God's "hunter," who forced Jews to create the state of Israel as their natural home.
Actually, Hagee was a founder of Christians United for Israel and the first non-Jew named "humanitarian of the year" by the San Antonio B'Nai B'Rith. Donahue, his former adversary, called Hagee "the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met." But McCain, who held his fire reacting to Hagee's anti-Catholic remarks, had no patience with less clear evidence of anti-Semitism.
Hagee tried to pre-empt McCain by withdrawing his endorsement, but the candidate beat him to the punch by disavowing him (along with another mega-church supporter, the Rev. Rod Parsley of Columbus, Ohio, because of harsh words about Islam). Hagee's telephone lines became clogged with calls from worshippers asking whether they should vote for McCain. Hagee replies he really does not know, but asserts to friends that McCain "threw me under the bus."
A prominent Christian ally of McCain's can understand reluctance to make a pilgrimage to Colorado Springs, with no assurance Dobson would endorse him or even restrain his criticism. But this evangelical sees the treatment of Hagee as a cold calculation to make sure McCain would not lose the Jeremiah Wright issue.
McCain strategists are encouraged by polling data that shows their candidate much more popular with rank-and-file conservatives than with their leaders (more than nine to one against Obama among self-identified conservative Republicans). The McCain strategy is to paint Obama in the White House as a daunting prospect. It maintains that while the Republican candidate is no day at the beach, his Democratic opponent would be a weekend in hell -- even if James Dobson and John Hagee do not agree.
The McLaughlin Associates nationwide poll in my last column indicating 49 percent for John McCain and 38 percent for Barack Obama referred only to white women. Among all women, it was Obama 45, McCain 43.